Gaming is Learning - VR in Science Education
Interview with Alvin Lee of Genius51
Earlier this spring, I got to try out a demonstration of VR physics lessons from Genius51, so I was very glad for a chance to talk with Alvin Lee, CEO of Genius51, to hear more about what he is hoping to do for physics education through VR.
Before Genius51, Alvin’s most recent role was with Coursera, a leading provider of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) where students can register for distance/online courses and learn alongside other students around the world going through the same material at the same time. Now, he hopes to improve access to education for schools in China through the new possibilities of VR.
So, what is Genius51?
“You can think of [Genius51 lessons] like a ‘virtual lab’,” Alvin explained. “Some experiments are not able to be shown in a classroom, so they can be done virtually.”
Whereas in the past students might have been able to watch a video about a concept, now they can experience or even interact with a model in VR. Whether because of costs, safety, or the difficulty of building models that accurately represent abstract concepts, virtual physics labs could become a reality for schools in China and abroad.
Genius51: Virtual Physics Lab
“Virtual reality is very useful for education in specific contexts,” said Alvin, “We make virtual reality that helps physics teachers explain abstract concepts.”
Genius51 has chosen to focus specifically on how VR environments can aid the teaching of complex topics that rely on students’ spatial awareness skills.
Genius51 is a subsidiary of 51VR, a major VR contact company in China. 51VR has a presence in many other cities within China, but Genius51 is one of Shanghai’s own. It was established at the beginning of 2017, and has been collaborating with schools and physics teachers to create educational content.
In a VR environment, it’s much easier to visualize abstract concepts by using interactive 3-D models. Genius51 and the teachers they work with are expecting that this will allow students to understand and internalize concepts that are often too complicated (or too expensive) to demonstrate in a typical classroom environment.
If you’ve ever struggled with science lessons about the physics of gravity or friction, then you might appreciate the Genius51 VR lessons where teachers can take their students on virtual field trips to places like frictionless planes or space, which were previously only possible on the popular kids’ science TV series The Magic School Bus.
Co-creating with Teachers
“We co-create with teachers, and they tell us what they need help in. We never come at it from the point of view of ‘what would this be like without a teacher’,” said Alvin, explaining how his team goes into schools to learn from the teachers there. “We figure out what their ‘pain points’ are, and what they find hard to teach,” he explained, and emphasized that the goals of Genius51 are to provide material that should support rather than replace teachers
“I don’t think that VR is going to replace teachers in the foreseeable future,” he said. “Not AI, not AR, not VR. We work with teachers. VR is a medium for representing things, but it’s not so good for facilitation, interaction, and other things that teachers do.”
Alvin explained the focus of Genius51 saying, “Right now, it’s K-12, and only concepts that are better in VR. For instance, electricity is safer in VR.” Because the costs of VR for schools is still relatively high, Genius51 chooses its topics carefully to provide the most benefit to teachers.
He explained that in one of their partner schools, there is a teacher who will teach her physics lesson as normal, and then use the VR lesson to allow students to further experience and explore the concepts.
A Frictionless World
“A physics teacher actually told us that the concept of friction is hard to explain, and it’s an important concept. So, we made some VR that simulates a frictionless world, and it helps [students] understand or feel what they couldn’t before. You push a box and it goes on forever with constant velocity.”
So what is it like?
After fitting your head inside of one of the HTC Vive headsets, you may suddenly find yourself in a vast lecture hall, where you can observe and interact with an experiment that simulates the effects of gravity. Another experience takes you to a frictionless ice rink where you can observe laws of action and reaction in an ideal environment, complete with woolly mammoths. Besides simply observing it, you experience it when you push an object and find yourself sliding infinitely away at a constant rate.
Science nerds out there will join me in hoping to finally visit a room filled with massless springs.
How does it work?
Alvin describes some of Genius51’s ‘secret sauce’, “We have a good animation team that makes the characters feel more lively. It feels like you are in an animated picture”.
When it comes to VR hardware, the lessons currently come packaged with HTC Vive, but Alvin plans to expand Genius51 lessons to work with any VR hardware, including the Pico Neo or anticipated standalone Vive Focus that will be available in China before the end of 2017. Both are mobile headsets that do not require a connected computer.
A school using these lessons would also receive VR hardware and direct consultation from the Genius51 team to help teachers set up the equipment and incorporate the lessons in a way that fits their curriculum. Genius51 staff and Alvin himself are very involved in making sure that that schools, teachers, and students are happy with the experience.
“Gaming is Learning”
“I think that when kids enjoy the process of learning, they will want to explore more.”
When it comes to educational goals and values, the Genius51 motto is “Gaming is Learning” and they take their fun quite seriously.
“There are a lot of games in VR that are fun. What we are trying to do is something that is fun, and that achieves educational goals,” said Alvin, adding that they specifically try to build lessons around concepts that can only be demonstrated in VR.
“Gaming is Learning” is a concept that Alvin tries to encourage within the Genius51 office as well, saying, “There are many companies you could build, so I’m trying to build one that is playful and imaginative.”
Alvin expects that providing students with a wider variety of ways to interact or engage with concepts will improve their attitude towards learning. “I think VR inspires you to want to learn more, because it opens up your perspective”, said Alvin, explaining his hopes for how VR can change the classroom environment for students. “I think that when kids enjoy the process of learning, they will want to explore more.”
He hopes this will help teachers provide students with much more interesting, memorable, and even joyful learning experiences.
‘A Bit of Joy’: VR lessons in Chinese schools
Besides just providing quality physics experiences for students and helpful VR materials for teachers, Alvin has another goal for Genius51.
“Another thing I’m trying to do is bring a bit of joy into the classroom,” he said. “It’s a pretty tough life to be a Chinese student.”
There are two ways in which these “virtual labs” are especially well-suited to classrooms in China. First, Chinese schools tend to have less time for labs or for hands-on practice, so the efficiency of a virtual lab improve this. Second, Chinese kids are feel a lot of pressure to study hard in a hyper-competitive environment. Especially in “cram schools”, Alvin feels that the kind of lessons that Genius51 has to offer is much more appreciated than it would be in schools outside of China.
“Life is tough for Chinese kids in school, so we also try to make it a bit more fun for them. And, they love VR,” he said, recalling a demo at a school where the students gave the VR lesson a perfect ’10 out of 10′. I could tell that Alvin was very encouraged and inspired by this positive review from the students themselves, but still humbly focuses on improving and on the long road ahead.
The Virtual Frontier in Education
“No one else is doing what we’re doing, which is good and bad!” Alvin explained, “It’s good because I think it’s an opportunity; but it’s very hard. That’s probably why no one else is doing it!”
Regarding VR and education in general, Alvin keeps his expectations practical. He doesn’t expect any kind of “miracle cure” for education to emerge from the VR industry, but he is optimistic that little by little, the way we teach and learn will continue to change for the better.
“I’m just a small part of that process of helping kids to learn better,” he said. “We are at the beginning of VR in the education world. These things take a while to filter into the education system.”
When it comes to specific technology, he is ‘agnostic’ about any particular kind. He reflected on how there is a lot of misunderstanding about what different technologies can or can’t be used for.
The important thing is not what type of technology is used, but whether it can improve education.
Here is where the opportunities for VR innovation in education are especially inspiring. At Genius51, VR is not just as another kind of classroom, but a new way of allowing teachers and students to create their own understanding of the world.
Alvin described the ‘bigger picture’ of his hopes for VR in education,
“Ideally, education should be about creating your own world, your own representation of phenomena, I think VR is a good representation of that creation process.”
Isn’t that combination of perceiving the world and creating one’s own understanding what critical thinking and real education are all about? They are important skills that don’t often get space to breathe in the walls of a traditional classroom.
So what’s next for Genius51? “We are experimenting with all different kinds of media for delivering educational content,” said Alvin, “VR happens to be the first one. So … stay tuned!”
Try it Yourself
To anyone who is interested in learning more about VR in general, Alvin personally suggests:
- Find a place to try out Google Tiltbrush, since that’s what got him hooked. There are a growing number of VR Arcades such as HIVE in Shanghai, China where you can try different VR experiences.
- Check VEER for examples of other VR content; it’s a platform similar to YouTube or Youku, but specifically for hosting 360 and VR videos. You might even try uploading some of your own!
- Download the YouTube VR app and explore higher-rated content in the educational space
And of course, check out the possibilities of Genius51:
Alvin Lee is CEO at Genius51, Partner at 51VR, and China Venture Partner at 1823 Ventures. He was formerly China Market Lead for Coursera, a leading Massive Online Open Course (MOOC).
Alvin graduated with honors from Yale University, with a double major in political science and international studies. He has spent time on projects with the Singapore government, Finance and Trade Ministries, and National University of Singapore. He was part of the core team organizing the APEC meetings in Singapore, and has been a speechwriter for the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and Trade Minister of Singapore.
His love of education and edtech has led him to his current work on Genius51.
Originally published at www.chopsticksvr.com on October 19, 2017.